Who could have anticipated that one of the most effective and expressive environmental films of recent years would be the work of a Gotham theater director who’s never before made a doc? Nobody, perhaps least writer-director Josh Fox, whose “GasLand” may become to the dangers of natural gas drilling what “Silent Spring” was to DDT. The rare example of cinema art that is also an organizing tool, the pic has a level of research, gutsiness and energy that should generate sensational response everywhere it plays. Distribs with a social conscience have a gem to buy, if they dare.
While Fox’s theater group, Intl. Wow Company, creates work with social and political content (including his wild, unkempt first feature about returning vets, “Memorial Day”), his achievement with “GasLand” is of a greater level of art and activism.
Narrating a first-person account, Fox relates how a natural gas company made him a lease offer for $100,000 from a natural gas company to explore on his land, which includes the house his parents built in Pennsylvania’s Delaware River Basin abutting upstate New York.Fox begins to do his own research on drilling, and leaves countless unreturned messages with natural gas drillers like Halliburton.
Congress’ 2005 Energy Policy Act, crafted by former vice president (and ex-Halliburton exec) Dick Cheney, exempts the hydraulic fracturing drilling process used by natural gas companies (known as “fracking”) from long-held environmental regulations such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. Freed from customary laws, natural gas companies have drilled like wildcatters in 34 states where huge shale fields contain gas deposits.
Once Fox learns that his beloved Delaware River watershed is being targeted by drillers as part of the massive Marcellus Shale field, he goes on the road to track down residents living near drilling sites. This is seat-of-pants investigating that yields astonishing and disturbing findings, not least of which is how the residents can customarily light a flame near their tap water outlet and set the polluted water on fire. As Fox ventures west, to Colorado, Wyoming and Texas, states riddled with natural gas drill sites, he documents horror story after horror story.
The primary cause is the cornucopia of toxic chemicals, blended with water, which must be used in fracking. Infrared-camera footage records venting of polluting gases coming off drill rigs, crushing the myth that natural gas is “clean” and a greenhouse solution. In vivid animation and graphics, Fox illustrates how the continent-wide explosion of fracking projects threatens watersheds and river basins, the source of drinking water.
For all of its engaging information, the film itself is a piece of beautiful cinema, rough-hewn and poetic, often musical in its rhythms and about as far from the “professional” doc that’s the stock-and-trade of Sundance, where “GasLand” is vying in the U.S. competish. The marriage of sound and image (Fox joins Matthew Sanchez on lensing, and Brian Scibinico on sound) veers between nightmarish moods and lyrical reveries, even while the camera peers into the faces of government and corporate officials.
A combo of fest and grassroots exhibition, with viral networking, is part of the pic’s goal to push for new federal controls on fracking (now being considered in Congress). But if a film can ever enact social change, which is rare, the potency of “GasLand” suggests that this may be that film.